Monday, June 9, 2014

Some thoughts on individual rights and freedoms

I grew up with a western-USAmerican mindset, where the natural inclination for a person is to do as they please, and for that person to allow others the same priviledge. It's a culture of self-reliance and of independance and of individuality - qualities that I see as virtuous. At the same time, though, they also lead toward self-centered conservatism and isolationism and a lack of concern for fellow citizens.

A sense of independant & self-reliant individualism is intimately connected to the idea of inalienable individual rights (which, most of my seven readers will recall, are deeply imbedded in the US Constitution). Those are the foundation fo western civilization, and particularly of USAmerican culture.

(Unfortunately, our societal push toward freedom in founding this great nation trampled on the personal & societal rights of millions of individuals who were part of the scores of Native (North, Central, and South) American societies. Further, our individualistic push toward the pursuit of life & liberty & happiness trampled on the personal and societal rights of Africans and their decendants who were individually and societally enslaved in order to build profit for some.)

I'm thinking about where individual rights begin and end over the past couple of days. Let me explain.

I'm traveling with my family through the United Kingdom this month. We spent a few days in London at the outset of our trip, and I was paying attention to the cyclists that are all over this city.
There were quite a few people on bikes - all kinds of people and all kinds of bicycles.

In addition to the bikes and cyclists who were all around, I also noticed London's cycling infrastructure. There are cycle lanes on almost every major street, and also on most of the intermediate streets as well. The minor streets were generally unmarked for cyclists - however, people on bikes were traveling on those just as they did on intermediate and major streets - in the midst of and alongisde cars and trucks as if bikes were traffic. What a beautiful thing.

In addition to the cycle lanes painted on many streets, I also saw that on some streets, physical barriers (cement curbs) had been installed, as if the city wants to keep people on bicycles safe. Additionally, bicycle parking seems to be readily available almost everywhere, and we walked by scores of rental bike stands.

What's the difference between London (where drivers slow down for cyclists in the road, recognizing perhaps that any delay the cyclist causes will amount to no more than 30 seconds) and Denver (where in a 25 mph zone I was buzzed by a driver who passed me when my speed was 27, and who proceeded a few minutes later (after I'd passed him at a stop) to honk and yell at me because he had to wait no longer than five seconds extra for me to get through an intersection)?

[Of course, I'm probably not giving him the benefit of the doubt, but he seemed to be self-centered and lacking in concern for the perspective of his fellow citizen.]

What's the difference? I wonder if our understanding and embrace of western individualism plays a role?

Did the driver believe that I was trampling on his right to not be delayed as he drove his truck? Does he believe that I have an individual right to ride a bicycle on the street?

Does that driver consider that my right to ride a bicycle on the street is restricted - that I ought not occupy the whole lane most of the time? And does that driver also believe that his right to drive a truck must sometimes also be restricted by my right to ride a bicycle on public streets?

Here's the thing. In a free and equal society, no ond has unrestricted rights. I have the right to freely swing my fist - but my right to swing my fist ends (is restricted at the point where) someone else's nose begins.

So I find myself facing a balancing-act sort of dilemma, particularly with regard to the "right to keep and bear arms" issue.

On the one hand, I absolutely don't want to restrict the rights that our USAmerican constitution provides - the right for citizens to keep and bear arms. On the other hand, do we extend that right so far that it takes away rights from other people?

Does the right to keep and bear arms extend so far as to allow individuals to bring military-style rifles into places of business? I'd like to say yes. But what if an individual who openly carries a semi-automatic rifle into a department store curtails someone's right to the pursuit of happiness? Or, what if carrying a loaded weapon into a restraunt curtails a group's right to peaceful assembly?

Say, for instance, a family's breadwinner just received a promotion, moving the family from a poor neighborhood in San Diego where there are regular gun battles between drug cartels, and where a relative was killed in crossfire. And what if they moved into a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Dallas. What if, when they're shopping for school supplies in a middle-class department store for their kids' school clothes, a group of young men come in the store walking around with pistols on their belts that look just like the guns carried by the cartels? The family is traumatized, and their pursuit of happiness is curtailed.

Who's rights are more important?

Or, for instance, what if a group of Iraq war veterans meet to discuss and work through the PTSD they're living with in the aftermath of their experience in conflict? And what if they go out to lunch together after the meeting? And what if, as they're enjoying some delicious burritos, a couple of young men walk through the doors carrying semi-automatic military-style rifles? The instincts of those veterans will kick in, and their right to peaceful assembly will be immediately curtailed.

Who's rights are more important?

These truly are genuine questions - I'd be interested in a genuine and thought-filled answers ...or at least a respectful conversation.